Mourners pay tribute to South Side gospel legend Pastor Maceo Woods
Woods, who died last week at age 87, was eulogized Saturday by spiritual leaders, the music community, city leaders, and former and current presidents.
A trumpet fanfare filled the concert hall of Christian Tabernacle Church as hundreds of mourners gathered to remember Pastor Maceo Woods, the legendary South Side preacher and best-selling gospel artist who died earlier this month.
The ceremonious horns, which Woods would use to open concerts under his record company Gospel Supreme, set the tone for the late pastor’s funeral service as a lively gospel concert to celebrate his life.
“We’re not coming to funeralize or mourn. We’re here to celebrate the life, legacy and love of Rev. Maceo Woods,” Pastor James Bryson said near the beginning of the service. “He promoted, played, preached and pastored. Let the church say amen.”
As the horns faded, members of the church’s famed Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir, which Woods helped form after founding the church in 1960, marched into the hall to a thumping drum beat and pipe organs. The women wore graceful black dresses with white polka dots, while the men dressed in snazzy black suits accented with white bow ties.
Woods died Jan. 11 at 87 at his South Side home. In addition to preaching, singing and serving as choirmaster at the church he founded, Woods composed gospel standards, recorded popular albums, hosted radio and TV programs, and helped organize gospel music festivals.
Woods’ three-hour funeral service was perfectly coordinated to the church organist’s skillful playing. As family, friends and other clergy took to the stage to share fond memories of Woods, the organist greeted them with his instrument’s warm and hearty pitch.
When Pastor Mack C. Mason of Greater Prayer Garden Church choked up delivering a eulogy for Woods, the organ’s timbre lifted him with a gentle and comforting crescendo that encouraged him to go on.
Mason spoke about how Woods brought people together to transform Christian Tabernacle, located at 47th Street and Prairie Avenue, from its humble roots to the elegant worship and concert hall that stands today.
“Pastor Woods had such a welcoming spirit and a way of drawing people in to Christian Tabernacle,” Mason said. “Even if you weren’t looking for a church home, you became part of our growing family.”
In addition to the singing from the Christian Tabernacle Concert Choir, the ceremony included musical tributes from other groups that Woods helped create, such as the Gospel Imperials and GMAC.
“Pastor Woods had fame and celebrity status from his music, but he never let that define him,” said his longtime friend Howard Henry. “He always said he was called to pastor and he was going to stay true to his calling. He loved this church.”
Henry went on to list a series of words describing the pastor with each word punctuated by short applause from the audience.
“Pastor Woods was anointed, classy, profound, distinguished, eloquent, insightful and trailblazing,” Henry started. “He was also enlightened, a visionary, approachable, hilarious, caring and humble.”
Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th) attended the funeral on behalf of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other elected officials to pay tribute to Woods, who was also honored during the Chicago City Council’s session on Wednesday.
The service also included a written acknowledgement from President Donald Trump that one of the church members read aloud. It honored Woods as an “American treasure” and “legend in our time and for generations to come.”
“Through his service, [Woods] helped change the life of this country and he will forever be remembered,” the statement finished to surprised chuckles and some muted applause.
It was followed by a second acknowledgement from former President Barack Obama, which was met with roaring applause and cheers.
“Michelle and I want to offer our deepest condolences on the passing of Dr. Maceo L. Woods,” Obama’s statement read. “Dr. Woods had a great presence in the city of Chicago and religious community that will be truly missed. His work, service and attitude was a gift to the world and will not be forgotten.”
His breakthrough came in the mid-1950s with his recording of “Amazing Grace” on Vee-Jay Records, where he became a house organist.
“‘Amazing Grace’ went on to become the best-selling gospel instrumental of all time, reportedly selling 200,000 copies in its first year of release,” according to Robert M. Marovich, founder of the Journal of Gospel Music, host of the WLUW radio show “Gospel Memories” and author of “A City Called Heaven: Chicago and the Birth of Gospel Music.”
“His music has no expiration date,” said WVON radio host Pam Morris-Walton.